Danish auteur, Nicholas Winding Refn’s, Only God Forgives, the festival’s Competition Winner, is a visceral journey into Thailand’s underworld, touching on themes of spiritualism, rage and revenge. Although he may have won a wealth of fans with his previous feature, Drive, he will most likely divide them with Forgives.
We follow Ryan Gosling’s Julian, an American in Bangkok, running a kickboxing arena as a front for the family drug-smuggling syndicate. After his brother is killed by an enigmatic, blade-wielding detective, Julian is pressured by his venomous mother (a brilliant Kristin Scott Thomas) to seek revenge.
Gosling, with his looks of (now patented) languor and minimal dialogue, manages to underplay the character too much – making Julian feel like a parody of Alain Delon’s Jeff Costello or, more appropriately, Gosling’s own anti-hero in Drive. Though Julian is mentioned as being “extremely dangerous,” Gosling prefers to stare at his hands for 30 seconds at a time or stand, framed, in front of dragon-patterned walls. Nor do we get enough sense of the impending doom that the screenplay seems to steer its protagonists towards.
It is left to his foul-mouthed mother (Scott Thomas) to add context to an otherwise basic storyline. A subplot involving Gosling’s relationship with a Thai prostitute is wasted, throwaway stuff with Refn more concerned with making every frame look good. Lingering close-ups and neon palettes of colour are used throughout; his camera’s chiaroscuro-lit corridors (one recurring reverie recalls Refn’s 2001 underrated feature, Fear X) and neon palettes of colour permeate the film’s dreamlike atmosphere.
Thankfully, as with Drive, the music forms an extension of the action, ranging from Cliff Martinez’s punching score to surreal diegetic moments (Vithaya Pansringarm’s karaoke singing is reminiscent of Lynch’s Blue Velvet). Most memorable is an organ-synth electronic piece accompanying the film’s standout scene, a ‘fight’ between Gosling and Pansringarm.
Though aesthetically pleasing and visually triumphant, Only God Forgives’ heightened reality and dense structure is a frustrating example of overt, distracting style and misplaced substance.